Across the pond football is growing. Experts predict that it could become the third most popular sport among Americans by 2026, overtaking baseball and ice hockey in the public’s sporting affections.
Since 2014 the United Soccer League, the second tier of American soccer, has more than doubled in size. At the start of the current season seven new expansion clubs joined the league. This huge increase in such a short pace of time reflects the public’s desire for a sport that has historically languished low in the pecking order of the nation’s sporting affections.
Of the 36 teams now established in the USL only two have been in existence longer than 20 years.Charleston Battery and Pittsburgh Riverhounds of the Eastern Conference were founded in 1993 and 1998 respectively and they are very much the grandfathers to the other 34 franchises, all of which were founded in the 21st Century.
Whilst a lack of history is lamentable in the eyes of football purists, the absence of any discernible traditions affords newly formed American Soccer clubs free reign when it comes to the design of their kits and badges and how they market their product.
In the more stuffy and stale environment of British football the freedom to innovate is not always available. A slight adjustment to the width of a team’s famous hoops can be met with derision while anyone who attempts to alter or, God forbid, modernise, an outdated crest can expect to feel the full force of a fanbase’s displeasure. In January of 2018 Leeds United attempted to take a step into the 21st century by changing the badge that had remained more or less unchanged since 1998 but what they produced was subject to ridicule on a viral scale. The club quickly backtracked and pulled the proposed design.
British football clings steadfastly to its traditions - The 50/50 half time draw is an archaic staple of the English game whilst mascots, in dire need of a new costume and an updated dance routine, trudge around the touchline scaring little kids - and often turns its nose up at the prospect of progression or change whereas the American game, shiny and new as it is, remains unshackled and free to embrace the present.
This freedom to innovate is no more apparent than in the case of Las Vegas Lights FC whose badge pays homage to the famous bright lights of the Vegas strip with neon lettering that wouldn’t look out of place on the sign of an open-all-hours strip club.
The shape of the crest, according to the club’s website, is inspired by the famous ‘Welcome to Las Vegas’ sign; the recognisable diamond shape is rotated 180 degrees to closer resemble a traditional club crest.
But it is not just the crest that is unique. The shirt itself, black with garish neon piping, has an smiling emoji on its reverse. The idea behind it is so that players can celebrate a goal by pulling up their jersey and revealing the emoji.
I can almost hear Roy Keane rolling his eyes.
The club, founded in 2017, has tried a number of bizarre ploys in order to get fans through the turnstiles.
Before a match against La Galaxy II last season the club invited fans to take part in a cashdrop. A helicopter hovered precariously over the pitch at the appropriately named Cashman Field and while the pilot demonstrated some impressive clutch control the bloke next to him began throwing dollar bills out of the window. Below, a scene of chaos quite befitting a city like Las Vegas ensued as the 200 selected fans scrambled around trying to pick up the money as it swirled and fluttered in the downwash from the helicopter.
Miraculously nobody was hurt and the event will be repeated again this season with the inclusion of additional prizes provided by the stunt’s official sponsor the Plaza Hotel. Gimmicks such as this would be frowned upon at Goodison Park or Old Trafford but are an essential part of marketing in the American game.
Soccer is fighting to be seen among several more popular sports so blue sky thinking is required if clubs are to lure fans away from courtside and into soccer grounds; in the birthplace of capitalism and in a place as brash as Vegas it is hardly surprising that a stunt as gaudy as a cashdrop proves a successful way of doing this.
The numbers speak for themselves, Lights averaged 7000 in their debut season in America’s second tier. That might not sound like a lot when you compare it to the Championship where clubs like Leeds United and Aston Villa regularly average over 30,000 but when you consider that the standard of football is considerably lower and that the club didn’t even exist up until two years ago, it is extremely impressive.
After three home games so far this season the Lights have added an extra 1000 supporters to last season’s average ranking 4th overall in the USL.
Among the other intriguing ways that Las Vegas Lights owner Brett Lashbrook has managed to lure fans to games are two llamas called Dolly and Dotty who are paraded around the pitch, pose in team photos and occasionally defecate on the playing service.
Why llamas would entice people to come to a football match I do not know but then again, not much makes sense in Sin City.
The club’s official mascot is Cash the Soccer Rocker who, according to Lashbrook is a ‘Hispanic Elvis Presley mixed with a little Johnny Cash.’
The Hispanic demographic is one that the club seems particularly keen to get on board. A third of Las Vegas’s population is Hispanic and given Central and South America’s football heritage, compared to that of the States, it is unsurprising that the club has acted to take advantage of this demographic.
Lights’ first ever manager, appointed before the 2017/18 season, was Mexican Jose Luis Sanchez Sola. And while the appointment might have succeeded in galvanising the Hispanic population it didn’t work out on the pitch; Sola left at the end of the season after a tumultuous tenure during which he was banned for eight games after an altercation with an abusive fan.
In the off-season the club appointed former USMNT player Eric Wynalda, once his country’s record goalscorer, as Head Coach but after seven games of this campaign Lights find themselves stuck in 15th after two wins and four defeats so far.
Despite a difficult start Lights’ fans have good reason to stick by their club. The franchise has been created in such a way as to include its supporters at every available opportunity. They picked the name, the kit and the crest; the fabric of the club belongs to them and that breeds loyalty.
Lashbrook, who moved to Nevada in 2015 to care for his ill mother, is a man with a vision. His ultimate aim is for Lights to become an MLS franchise and to make the club an attractive prospect to the people of the city by bringing fun and excitement to the matches.
Sadly in the UK the rise of soccer in the States is still viewed by many as a feeble attempt to jump on a bandwagon that they missed back when the sport was making waves across the globe, a place where has-been talent is put out to pasture, a lousy tacky imitation of the real thing.
But in an age rife with ownership crises and disillusionment among fanbases, would it be such a bad thing if we looked across the Atlantic for some fresh ideas on how to rejuvenate some of the more stagnant aspects of the game?
*all imagery via Las Vegas Lights FC*